Highgate cemetery felt broken down. Shattered slabs of marble were being claimed by the spreading undergrowth. The cracked stone looked distraught in the glinting sunlight. Angels with dirty faces and missing fingers perched atop crumbling headstones, stretching upwards, about to fail in flight.
I tried to ignore my pinging headache and the weeping bloodshotness of my eyes as under my feet ivy snaked its way across names and dates, straggling the history out the place. Yet despite this, it was disturbingly calm and eerily quiet, just the distant burr of traffic occasionally cutting the silence open. Even the Whittington Hospital, barely visible through the thick trees, was free from sirens. The green canopy overhead dappled the sunlight into patches of lightness, fleeting moments of relief from the oppressiveness. The ground was surprisingly wet, as though all the bodies fed it and made it virile, the nutrients soaked the soil to such an extent where when a tree burst fresh and alive out the centre of a marked grave, I couldn’t help wonder if it was a soul being reborn.
Highgate Park at the top of the hill, above the cemetery, looked like another world - one of sunshine and joy, hidden away on the far side of the black iron railings. And then I realised that the guy looking moody on the bench, starring deep into the graves was, almost appropriately, Morrissey.
There were red lilies on Lily’s grave that Sunday morning, their petals gently twisting in the breeze, a simple beauty that made me feel all melancholy and self-obsessed.
All around were the discarded plastic wrappings from Tesco-value flowers, no doubt purchased on arrival in the metro branch on the high street. When I turned the corner I came across a skip packed with old carpet and wooden pallets and crushed cans of strongbow and packets of jaffa cakes with one hundred percent extra free and I asked myself how had these things got inside the sealed gates?
(Yeah, the irony of having to pay three pounds to enter the cemetery where Marx is buried hadn’t passed me by.)
Marx’s big grey marble head leered sternly down at all passers by equally. The words etched onto his plinth - philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it - lay down a challenge. Around the base, in amongst a few flowers, were scraps of paper. I leant in closer and peered over the rim of my dark glasses. They were notes written in a dozen languages. Somehow it’s always been easier to tell the dead our dreams. The only one in English read simply ‘thanks Karl’, whether as genuine sentiment or in sarcasm was unclear. Then a strong wind blew and the papers fluttered into the air and around my head like baby origami birds.
Malcolm McLaren died last week. Behind all the bluster and the sound-bites and the media manipulation, when you looked past the cultivatedly mad hair and tartan scarves and confrontational demeanour McLaren was instrumental in helping the final quarter of the twentieth century give birth to the twenty-first century. If it hadn’t been for punk’s headbutting of the last fragments of repressed Britishness then we’d probably still be strangling ourselves with notions of stiff upper lips and signs in the doors of pubs that read ‘No Dog, No Blacks, No Irish.’
And without McLaren, punk would never have been quite so boisterously in the Daily Mail’s face; he took the thirty-year old concept of angry young men and made them a national scandal all over again to draw attention to the real scandals – unemployment, disillusionment, lack of opportunity, nihilism. Chaos is, after all, better than blandness. And we may be back in recession, services may be on the verge of widespread strike action, youth unemployment may be epidemic, but, hell, it could be worse. We could be Krygyzstan. We could be advising the kids who’ve never worked to just pull their socks up and just get on with life on their own. We might still be believe that we’re not allowed to cry.
Another British icon, Michael Caine entered the election foray with a marvellous display of understanding what the hell was going on. In giving his endorsement for the new Conservative National Service for sixteen year olds, his own national service he has said many times he loathed, managed to not only refer to them as the government, but said that the Tories deserved a second term in office.
“Not a lot of people know that.”
This National Service is another wonderful non-policy from the Tories. No, it’s not a return to compulsory two year tour of duty in the armed forces which was ended in 1960, but instead the opportunity for young people to volunteer for work in the community and charity work. Sorry, but doesn’t this already exist, isn’t it just working in the community and charity work? Where’s the difference? The party that talks about removing big government and streamlining is talking about putting an additional layer of administration in for kids who want to help out. It’s just a pointless rebranding of reality. But then there’s a lot of that about.
Still, it could have been worse for flabby-faced Dave. Okay, so he was embarrassed by the critically lauded film star of Jaws: The Revenge and the Muppets’ Christmas Carol, but poor old Cleggy had got out of his bed at five in the morning, wrapped himself up in his dark blue overcoat, pulled his flat cap down low and flown to Scotland to launch the Scottish Liberal Democrats campaign. He landed with the assembled the press corps to meet a few eager young whey faced candidates alongside the bottle cragged face of Compo Kennedy, only to discover that not one single member of the electorate bothered to show up. You know his problem?
“Ooo – I can’t remember his name.”
“My name is-“
Meanwhile, somehow without a spin through the air or a ‘good grief’ in sight, good ol’Gordie Brown launched the Labour Party’s manifesto on Monday, at once harking back to the party’s glory days of the forties – the adapted future fair for all slogan and accompanying art deco imagery – and basking in the achievements of more recent years in the new high-tech Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham for veterans. He managed to gloss over quite why so many new facilities for teenagers with legs lost below the knee, with metal pipes replacing ribs, with transplanted muscle and regrafted skin keeping them upright, were needed in the first place, though.
Petey was pleased with it. He claimed to feel Blair’s ghost smiling down approvingly on its contents. When told this in front of news cameras Beagle Balls looked shocked: ‘He didn’t really say that, did he?’ perhaps already feeling the daggers digging into his kidneys.
This morning, honest-Dave launched his manifesto – I can’t bring myself to call it the Conservative Party’s manifesto given that they all seem so eager to pander to his cult of personality – set against the backdrop of the wreckage of Battersea Power Station. The post-apocalyptic overtones were as subtle as disgraced Scottish Labour candidate’s twitter post “I think it’s my patriotic duty to kick David Cameron in the nuts.”
The country’s ruined, leaving us scrabbling around amongst the broken bricks and asbestos dust eating dead pigeons and wearing the fur of urban foxes for modesty. Interestingly, honest-Dave also managed to apply some gloss, this time avoiding the fact that Battersea Power Station was closed down in 1975 and has seen a total of six prime ministers fail to find a successful regeneration project for it – as though it was even within their remit.
Still, not to worry. Who’s going to save us from this future that arrived thirty-five years ago. Not Labour. Not the Tories. No, don’t be silly, not the Lib-Dems either.
Yes, vote Conservative and they’ll take the salaries (albeit a five percent lower) and kick back whilst everyone else rescues the failing elements of the country.
Anyone else starting to get confused between their left and right?
Marx had a manifesto. You might have heard of it. It went something like this: Workers of the world unit. Interestingly, the Communist Manifesto built upon Engels’ earlier piece, The Condition of the Working Class in England. Russia, to an extent Germany and Spain, may have been early European adopters, but it was the disparity in English life that helped formulate their ideals of fairness, of equality.
Both men lived and wrote in Victorian London which, like the rest of the country, was a city of two peoples. On one side, there were the immensely wealthy. The Victorians of strict publicly forced moral conduct, austere suits with tall top hats and high necked frocks for the ladies, and rigorously dictated mourning periods and families concerned with the issues of a Wildean farce, of birthright and perceived suitability for a good marriage. Of course, behind the closed doors there were Masonic rituals and sexual deviancy and child abuse and deep seated frustrated resentment, but they were rich. They could afford to keep their emotions, their disappointments in life, locked away in the attic alongside the portrait that aged and deformed alongside with society’s every malevolent move.
Then there we the poor. The so-called great unwashed masses, the children of Dickens. Street urchins without shoes and raggedy clothes covering their scabby backs. Cunning manipulators who’d slice open their father for a chunk of bread. Children stuffed up chimneys. Drunkards drowned in gin. Whores in East End pubs cut to shreds for Lord knows what reason. Desperation with a weary face; the burden of sleeping a dozen to a cramped, damp room; of waking up to feel the cold heavy clasp of your mother’s arm across your chest as her lips turned blue in the depths of winter. Real life, in all its honestly bitter and fucked-off glory.
And somewhere in-between, a small yet growing middle class; those who frantically flailed at the coat tails of the richer whilst snatching worried glances over their shoulders at everyone else lest they catch up.
Marx and Engles wanted to make everyone equal. So it wasn’t perfect, so it wasn’t even that clever, but it would have been fairer. Everyone, however, just wanted to be competitively middle class.
Manifestos are the embodiment, the codexification of political ideals. No wonder no-one’s interested in actually reading them anymore when the ability to react, to change to your mind, to reassemble your personal history and bugger everything else, is the order of the day.
‘We’re all middle class now,’ sneered Tony Blair a few years ago before slinking off to live a life more akin to a nineteenth century Turkish sultan. The problem was that he ignored the huge drifting gulf on inequality opening up in order to get a good headline. The rich have been getting richer and the rest of us… Well, you know how it goes.
There isn’t a hidden Britain, a damaged sodden underbelly of a class that exists in isolation, refusing to interact with the rest of us. There’re just the poor. We can’t rebrand them into some sort of new and insurmountable problem, else that’s what it’ll become: all the shit scooped out of the living room and dumped behind the shed where no-one can see it, but it’ll still smell.
Andrew Rawnsley doesn’t think that elections are won by manifestos; that no-one cares who’s got the best policies, but the winners are those who make us ask ourselves the best question. He’s probably right. Unfortunately, the question almost certainly won’t be ‘who can bring us closer together, who will pull us toward equality?’, but more likely ‘who will put more cash in my pocket?’
Thanks anyway, Karl. Thanks for trying.